9th Circuit Ruling on Fatal Police Shooting Upholds Qualified Immunity on Federal Claims – but Family Can Proceed on State Claims

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By Emeline Crowder 

LOS ANGELES, CA – The U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals this past week granted qualified immunity on federal claims to Toni McBride , an officer for the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) who shot a man six times in 2020, killing him.

The ruling has stirred concerns over creating a precedent to protect officers accused of excessive force, according to The Los Angeles Times, adding the appeals court said the family of the victim can sue on state claims.

The Times reported McBride was responding to a multi-car crash on April 22, 2020.

In an X thread by Joanna Schwartz, a professor of law at UCLA, the court ruling concluded the crash was caused by Daniel Hernandez, who, as the Los Angeles Times notes, was allegedly under the influence of methamphetamine.

Professor Shwartz’s thread stated “when police approached his car, he exited with what officers thought was a knife (but was a boxcutter).” Hernandez was 40-45 feet away from Officer McBride when she fired twice.

Hernandez remained 40-45 feet away, but as he was pushing himself up from the ground, McBride “fired a second volley of two shots,” the thread notes, adding McBride fired another two bullets as Hernandez began to roll on his side, and “Hernandez died from his injuries, with the coroner determining that the sixth shot was fatal.”

According to the thread, “the district court said the officer didn’t violate Hernandez’s constitutional rights.”

And, in a quote from Justice Daniel P. Collins, The Los Angeles Times notes the three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit concluded, “Although a reasonable jury could find that the force employed by McBride was excessive, she is nonetheless entitled to qualified immunity.”

While the 9th Circuit “recognized that it’s clearly established that an officer can’t use force on someone who doesn’t pose a threat…Hernandez’s family needed to find a prior factually specific case,” according to the X thread.

The X thread added that “police officers are entitled to qualified immunity unless existing precedent ‘squarely governs’ the specific facts at issue.’” According to the thread, finding a specific case would inform Officer McBride “that her conduct was unlawful.”

However, the thread notes “police officers don’t read court decisions.” Rather, officers “learn general legal standards” and become comfortable with their application, “requiring plaintiffs to find identical prior facts makes no sense.”

The prof adds that “the inanity of the belief that officers read & retain thousands of court decisions & then distinguish among them when deciding to act is illustrated by the court’s analysis in Zion… a 9th Circuit decision that the plaintiffs claimed clearly established the law.”

As the thread argues, the Hernandez case also highlights why qualified immunity does not protect officers from discovery and trial. As Professor Shwartz points out, Officer McBride was “deposed in federal court before qualified immunity was decided” and “will likely stand trial on remaining state law claims.”

The thread states the conclusion of qualified immunity is not necessary to protect officers’ finances. The thread points out that under California law, “officers are entitled to indemnification.” The thread argues that even without qualified immunity, officers “wouldn’t have to pay a dime.”

According to the thread, the 9th Circuit’s ruling “clearly establishes the law for future cases,” concluding that due to the granted qualified immunity, Hernandez’s family is unable to “argue a violation of their and their loved one’s federal constitutional rights before a federal jury.”

But, they could proceed on state grounds, the court found, wrote the Times.

About The Author

Emeline is a third year undergraduate at UC Davis, studying International Relations and French. She is passionate about law, the criminal justice system and international politics, and hopes to pursue a career in diplomacy in the future. In her free time, Emeline loves to read, craft and hike.

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